Tag Archive | Braseone

The Fall and Rise of Field Marshal Haig

I think I said my next post was going to be Martial again.

Well, yes and no. I’ve written before on the impact of the First World War on my college, but the most famous Great-War soldier from Brasenose was the British Commander-in-Chief himself, Field-Marshal Douglas Haig, perhaps the most controversial figure the war produced. An undistinguished student at Brasenose from 1880 to 1884, Haig emerged with a Pass degree, despite apparently spending most of his time at Oxford on horseback, but received tutorials from, among others, Walter Pater; at which the mind truly boggles.

Oxford colleges, like every other British institution, were traumatized by the war, and when hostilities were finally over faced the same challenge of creating a memorial equal to the enormity of what had happened. Brasenose’s response should certainly strike us as peculiar, but it clearly made sense to the fellowship at the time.

Within six months of the Armistice the College had decided on a three-part memorial, a monument in the chapel recording the names of 114 men of Brasenose who had dieda portrait of Haig by William Orpen, the war artist and portraitist, and a stone inscription at the entrance to the College reading as follows:


This last one went up first, and was in place just inside the main gate by November 1920; the wooden memorial in the chapel followed sometime between then and May 1921; while Orpen’s portrait of Haig, after appearing in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 1921, was hung in Brasenose Hall in January 1922. It was placed, significantly, on the east wall of the Hall, where images of the founders and most significant figures in College history are located. The painting had been partly funded by subscriptions from old Brasenose students, each of whom received a “photogravure” copy, a print, of Orpen’s work.

The striking thing, of course, is how unapologetically proud the College was of Haig in the immediate aftermath of the Great War, and to what extent he dominated Brasenose’s act of commemoration. This Brasenose man was the hero that had let the country to victory, the thinking seems to have been, and giving him the prominence he got was only appropriate.

Needless to say, the oscillations in Haig’s reputation over the years didn’t leave that confident assessment undisturbed. Stories are told about the portrait in Hall, though I’m not sure how true they are: that at a later stage it was removed from display, and only rehung when a descendant of Haig had happened to arrive as an undergraduate. It was certainly moved from the east wall, and now hangs in another corner of the room, quite easily missed.

As for the stone memorial in the Lodge, that was certainly taken down. When I turned up here a couple of decades ago it was under a tarp around the back of the College, and the College magazine from 1969 explains how it ended up there:

During the past year the Lodge-Entrance has been given a thorough refurbishing. Previously it had the appearance of a neglect dating back to its reconstruction in 1885, and the attention was overdue. (The only casualty in the operation was the plaque commemorating Field Marshal Earl Haig (1880) as the first among Brasenose warriors of 1914-18. Its legend, which may be found in The Brazen Nose of 1920, when it was erected, was often regarded as being not wholly in the happiest of taste. Its removal to make room for the Senior Tutor’s enlarged notice board, may or may not demonstrate superiority of the pen over the sword but is unlikely to cause a widespread sense of loss.)

An urbane account that omits as much as it says. You don’t take down a war memorial just to make space for a noticeboard, but then again you do take down a memorial lionising Field Marshal Haig in 1969. The Sixties had seen the First World War, at its fiftieth anniversary, returning to public attention, and Haig did not emerge well from it: there was a classic TV series, The Great War (1964), books like Alan Clark’s The Donkeys (1961) and A.J.P. Taylor’s The First World War: An Illustrated History (1963), and the musical Oh! What a Lovely War (1963). The dominant narrative became the one still familiar to us, lions led by donkeys. The film version of Oh! What a Lovely War was released in 1969, and did more than anything to crystallise the perception of Haig as a callous, upper-class buffoon, who was bound to be an acute embarrassment to his alma mater.

Now, though, another 50 years on, Haig is back on the wall again:

Haig inscr

It’s not so much that Haig is back in favour, though it’s true that more recent trends in Great War historiography make him a less toxic old member than he used to be. Really Haig’s back up there because it’s the centenary and it isn’t really acceptable to have a memorial, of any kind, hidden under a tarpaulin. Well, that’s my impression.

But just as the original commemorative plan in 1919 tells us fascinating things about how the war could be regarded in its immediate aftermath; and just as measures taken in 1969 characterize very vividly the view of the war and authority in general that prevailed fifty years later: so the recent re-erection of Haig’s memorial is a more complex, and telling, gesture than it may seem. It certainly hasn’t been returned to the College lodge. The place chosen for it might, to the uninitiated, seem equivalent to its original location: by a gate leading out onto High St. But in fact this is a very quiet part of College, and the gate isn’t used by students. In other words, the inscription has been placed in a position that looks like it’s on everyone’s route, “that those who pass may be put in mind of Field Marshal Earl Haig,” but is in fact well off the beaten track.

An entirely appropriate location for Field Marshal Douglas Haig in 2014, in other words.